Whether you are Albanian, or an expat who calls this country home, the chances are that you have been to Berat.
Located in the south of Albania, the city sprawls across the Myzeqe plain before narrowing on the banks of the Osum River and making its way around the foot Bektashi holy site, Mount Tomorr. A no-go zone during the 90’s due to the prevalence of organised crime and warring mafia factions, Berat has been given a new lease of life and is cementing itself as a prime tourist destination for anyone visiting Albania.
Famous for its architecture, its ties to Edward Lear and Lord Byron, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this summer alone it attracted over 120,000 visitors. But what does Berat have to offer that is off the beaten track? Whilst most visitors pass through for a day, take photos of where Mangalem and Gorica meet, and climb the steep ascent to the castle, there are many more layers to this ancient and fascinating city. This is what to do off the beaten track with just 24 hours in Berat.
The Kantina of Albania
If Korce is the Farm of Albania, and Shkodra is the Garden of Albania, then Berat is most definitely the Kantina of Albania. As you make your way from Fier, towards the entrance of the city, you are flanked almost continuously on either side by hectares upon hectares of vineyards. Delve further into the surrounding countryside, along perilously winding roads and you discover ancient vineyards that are tended to by families that have worked the land for generations.
One such gem is Kantina Alpeta located in Roshnik, 25 minutes outside of Berat. Owned by the Fiska family, they grow olives, grapes, mandarins and other fruits, as well as making raki and a fine selection of wines. You can sit in their garden with magnificent views over the valley and Tommor beyond, whilst sipping on oak-aged raki and dining on spit-roast goat from the family-owned restaurant in the village. As you sit here, taking in the peace and tranquillity of your surroundings, all that will disturb you is the tinkling of a cowbell or the braying of a lone donkey as it wonders by aimlessly.
Whilst Berat is famous for prestigious and longstanding Kantina’s such as Cobo and Nurellari, it is small places like this that allow you to totally disconnect from the outside world and to immerse yourself in a truly authentic, Berati experience.
Depending on when you visit Berat, you could be in for quite an unexpected surprise. Four years ago, Sheme Ruci had the idea to make the most of the areas fertile earth and fortunate climatic conditions, and decided to start growing saffron. He now employs up to 60 people to plant, cultivate, harvest, and prepare the saffron for export to international markets such as Italy and beyond. Retailing at around EUR 10,000 per kilo, it takes around 250,000 single flowers to make just 1000g of this prized spice.
The crocus blooms for just three weeks at the end of October and if you time your visit right, you could end up being taken to look at the rolling fields of purple flowers by Sheme’s son, who helpfully speaks good English. The smell of the delicate violate flowers combined with the buzzing bees and the sheet of vibrant colour as far as the eye can see, is a once in a lifetime experience.
The Stone Carver of Berat
The Fani family home sits high up on the Mangalem side of Berat, just below the imposing walls of its famous castle. Here, the family have lived for generations, handing down the craft of stonemasonry from father to son, for almost 400 years. Today, Xhoxhi Fani is passing the trade to his youngest daughter, but the family is fraught with the worry that this noble craft will die out completely.
If you visit any church, square, or stately establishment in Berat, the chances are that Xhoxhi’s hands have played a part in its stonework. From painstakingly chiselling fireplace mantels, to beautifully sculptured fountains and busts, his work is unmistakeable in its grandeur and painstaking attention to detail.
Those that are lucky enough to get an invitation can spend a few hours in the Fani house, exploring his studio and the family home before enjoying a selection of homemade liqueurs and candied fruits on the terrace. From up here the view across old Berat is utterly breath-taking and you can indulge in conversation and sweet treats whilst a couple of friendly cats brush up against your ankles.
Sami’s Antique Shop
Whilst this may not be one of the most hidden gems on the list, the wondrous items that you can find within, most certainly are. Located on the road that winds up towards the Kalaja, just next to the Jewish museum, it is a treasure trove of untold and undiscovered treasures.
Sami is a fascinating character- he shuffles around the shop, pointing out artefacts of interest and showing you his collection of photos from his past. A long-retired Professor and journalist, he was a good friend of Ismail Kadare, as well a having a story to tell about every item in the shop.
Piles of tattered papers, photos and documents, cabinets full of Ottoman silver and bejewelled rings, delicate beaded silk shirts from 250 years ago, and woven rugs made of itchy goat’s hair, this place is an Aladdin’s cave for the intrepid antique hunter. Oil paintings pile up against the wall, reams of brightly coloured fabric spill out of an old, painted crib, and pocket watches tick away in perfect synchronicity as the smell of times gone by permeate your nostrils.
Whilst many people are quick to choose soulless modernity over old-fashioned comfort, there is nothing I love more than big stone fireplaces, authentic fabrics, traditional art work, home cooking, and cosiness- this is exactly what Hotel Berati has to offer. There are lots of places to stay in Berat but I have chosen this place again and again. From the friendly smiles of the owners to the basic, comfy, yet unmistakeably Albanian rooms, I feel at home here and to me, it is a true gem.
The vast entrance and restaurant area is designed and crafted by the hands of Xhoxhi Fani and his wife handmade most of the laces and fabrics throughout, it feels like you are stepping into someone’s home. With sheepskin rugs and runners, woven geometric patterns on the floor, and the cheese filled petulla for breakfast, this is my favourite place to hibernate during my visits to Berat.
Home-Made Food Lili
I have a few go-to places to eat in Berat- Heaven’s Kitchen for a quick-fix with great service, or Wildor for delicious rabbit or wild boar washed down with a great selection of local wines, but for somewhere off the beaten track, it has to be Lili’s.
Lili’s is literally an extension of the owner’s house and with just a few tables, you need to book in advance but be aware, they fill up fast. Serving up home cooked dishes based on seasonal and fresh ingredients, it is best to just ask Lili to serve you what he wants, rather than pouring over the menu. Treat yourself to homemade wine, local Raki, and vegetables from the garden- don’t go expecting a restaurant, go expecting to eat at a traditional Albanian family’s home.
Berat is a wonderful place and each time I go I discover something new. These are my tips of things to do, see, and experience if you are in Berat for just 24 hours.